Article Category Archives: Poetry & Audio

Learning Their Names: Letters from the Home Place

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Letter from Inside Winter

Jannie to Sydney
27.12.20
 

Tonight I write to you from inside winter, its dark stillness, from fire in the grate
made by my love who understands the appetite of fire. On the hearth, seed catalogues
spill green incantations: Whorled Milkweed, Wild Bergamot, Many Flowered Aster.

Have you seen the little love letter to the world sandblasted on the High Level Bridge
walkway? dear unknown, bring it on! It was written by a pregnant teenager, part of
a community art project to keep people from jumping. How well has the spell worked?

Do you remember when she would have been called an unmarried mother?
Don’t ask a fish to describe water—the way I always begin my class on metaphor.
Today, a sudden small jarring, realizing front line workers and deployed are war words.

A weasel has moved into the old farmhouse. We saw it peeking from behind the boots—
luminously winter white, bold, deadly cute. No more mice. Weasels have
strong magic. In Japan, they are yōkai, who cause strange disturbances.

I’ve seen its tracks in the clearings you’ve made in the caragana. Delicate calligraphy:
a backbone of two dots repeated along the dragmark of tail. Was it the
weasel your motion sensor camera captured that I said looked like the prince of ghosts?

Make=Believe we’ve called this project, and it was you who put the sign for equals
between those two words. Think of all that’s balanced on that small bridge.
Work, creating, beginner’s mind, faith. dear unknown, bring it on!
 

photo of caragana trees in winter

Winter Caragana by Sydney Lancaster

 
Listen to Jannie Edwards read “Letter from Inside Winter.”
 

 

More Medicine

Sydney to Jannie
02.02.21
 

The Medicine in the land is beyond this moment of writing, beyond settlement,
homesteads, roads…
beyond me, in my lack of understanding
except
the visceral nature of being-in-the-place and the healing it brings.

The trees tell me things
About using the body to grow beyond
About using my damaged hands and back to heal
About time, and how it passes

The rupture
Of seed pods of
Loam rich with mushroom spores of
Coyote call in an otherwise silent evening of
Storms
Looming, rolling in
On themselves traversing
Sky dome
Erased by a wall of cloud electric

The body electric with
Anticipation
Of hands in soil, of rain, of thunder
Of Medicine.

I read that the bark of caragana makes good rope.
This is one of its medicines.
As a legume, it fixes nitrogen in the soil.
Another Medicine.
Also, the lightning spark seeds it throws everywhere are edible.
Yet another Medicine.

This is the contra-diction of the place, the home place, the not-home place.
That it is bounded in part by a plant so invasive,
So bound to the movement of people from
Elsewhere to the home
Place of
Planting feet in soil seeds in ground to make a
Shelter
Belt of trees a hedge
Hedging Bets on this place.
On believing.

 

photo of caragana pods

Caragana Pods by Sydney Lancaster

 

Listen to Sydney Lancaster read “More Medicine.”

 

***

About Learning Their Names

written by Jannie Edwards

Eighteen years ago, through great good fortune, my husband Mark and I came to be title holders of an off-grid five-acre settler homestead northeast of Edmonton, Alberta, near the historic Victoria Trail that hugs the North Saskatchewan River. In 2011, multi-disciplinary artist Sydney Lancaster approached us about the potential of creating art at the homestead, using whatever organic material she might find there. What she found in abundance was caragana (Siberian pea shrub), a fast-growing, invasive shelter belt brought here by Ukrainian settlers. Sydney began weaving living caragana trees to form enclosed spaces and tunnels. Within those spaces, she also created sculptures from cleared and woven deadfall, and installed motion sensor cameras to record animals and birds passing through the installation.

The “Slow Art” development of the project over the last decade has led to deeper conversations about settler colonialism, our responsibilities and complicity in this system, and how we respond to these forces through the stewardship of a small bit of the planet we love deeply. The project has been an opportunity to listen to and learn from the other-than-human presences of the place and to explore the connections between place, history, ownership, stewardship, and displacement. Through this process, we have come to see the caragana as a metaphor for both human resilience and the lasting impacts of settler-colonialism here. These connections continue to fuel our archival and geological research, and our exploration of the potential for art and writing to express these relationships. We have called the project Make=Believe, the equal sign evoking belief, hope, imagination, and effort in equal measure—a symbol to acknowledge the belief and sheer physical labour required of Indigenous people, Métis, and settlers alike in making a living on this land.

Over the last ten years, this project has been enriched by our collaborative exploration of the history of place, informed by archival and community-based research of how the land was surveyed and how the presence and history of Indigenous peoples were largely erased in the process. The art that has emerged includes an ongoing exchange of poetic letters, Learning the Names: Letters from the Home Place, between the two of us. We have discussed plans for Sydney to create an art book of this work and the creation of a videotaped performance enriched by images of the installation.

In the summer of 2021, Sydney created and documented an endurance performance in which she ceremonially dug up a caragana tree, formed its trunk and branches into a spike, then planted the spike in earth: an evocation of a “Witness Mound” used by the Dominion Land Survey to indicate homestead borders. She then “unmade” the spike and transformed the site into a garden bed, to be planted in the future with traditional Indigenous medicinal plants local to the area—a ritual of community-building Reconciliation to be shared with, and informed by, the wisdom of Indigenous artists and knowledge keepers.

***

About Jannie Edwards & Sydney Lancaster

An immigrant to Canada, Jannie Edwards writes from her chosen city of Edmonton, Alberta, amiskwacîwâskahikan (ᐊᒥᐢᑿᒌᐚᐢᑲᐦᐃᑲᐣ). She has published three collections of poetry: Falling Blues (2010), Blood Opera: The Raven Tango Poems (2006), and The Possibilities of Thirst (1997). She has collaborated on many mentorships and multidisciplinary artistic projects that include videopoems (“Engrams” and “adrift”), theatrical adaptations of her Blood Opera: The Raven Tango Poems, and a community art project that realized poems sandblasted into sidewalks on the High Level Bridge and city neighbourhoods.

Sydney Lancaster is a Prairie-born multidisciplinary artist and writer of settler stock, an uninvited guest on the traditional Indigenous territories encompassed by Treaty 6 and Métis Nation Region 4. Her work has been presented in Alberta, BC, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland, and the US. Her practice considers the relationships between place, objects, memory, knowledge, and time through site-specific installation & sculpture, video and audio works, printmaking, and photography. Sydney is currently completing a Masters of Fine Art at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Stations of Her Loss

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Portrait of the Artist’s Mother by Barbara Bickle

 

The Stations of Her Loss

1st

It came with first breath,
with a baptism from holy waters, with a slap
that knocked you into the noise of time.

It came, as always, with numbered
fingers and toes, a severed cord, a split brain,
division and oblivion;
a gift and a loss.

It came with a thud, like book to lectern—
oh, but it was good,
(while it lasted) no denying that—
you loved your gift so
much that you played it always
and everywhere, even in bed
as you whispered prayers.

2nd

For years, there were hints of loss,
but you ignored them,
in a long game of pretend;
you played your persona,
never letting on your uncertainty,
that you were losing your grip—
if your lines stayed smooth, how would anyone know?
You still wore your charms then, didn’t you?

3rd

You lost a name, a date,
a battle, a pastry, so what?
When you lost your own grandchild,
that was harder to reconcile—
better to make light of it,
like children, play hide-and-go-seek,
words disappearing
and yet retrievable, a-a-a-a-a-a-
game of time!

4th

What to do about the loss of conjugation,
the mangling of order and place?
Yes, a dog can follow commands;
curl into a ball, roll over, lie flat;
but no dog ever baked a pie.
What is the use of argument?
You pled harmony; I begged particulars.
Summertime, we picked strawberries:
me, the soft furred fruits; you, the firm green hearts.
I was the little brown berry of your brood;
the others had their own inflections—
did you forget that?

5th

Forgetting you forgot
brought you back to innocence,
to a time of laughter;
your speech became a marvel of invention:
word-bits strung in rapid chains
with an ease any rapper would envy.
I would snatch at the scatterings;
if I didn’t try for syntax,
you made more sense:
mac-adam-tar-mac-adam-madam-dam-mac-aroni—
Our Lady of the Mirror shares communion.

6th

You tossed your words like salad
and the wind caught the chaff;
you spit out your dentures
when they cluttered your mouth.
Only sticky words stuck;
snippets of song—
enpapapapa Lorraine,
dadadadada dondaine…
It was a time for dancing:
oh, oh, oh,
avec mes sabots!

You danced the day, you danced the night, out the door
and through the woods, until you found
a small safe house to hold you.

7th

Your joints jammed and your limbs locked:
You lost the spring, but kept the fall.
Down, down, down.
We propped you in a chair.
There, there, there.
When I massaged your shoulders,
it was like kneading boulders.
“Ahhh, yahhhh,” you sighed, sweet nothings.
You could still kiss.
There was still time for love-making.

8th

We found you sitting at your bedside,
blathering to dolls.
We drew our chairs around you;
storytime: your face raced from one plot to another,
grinning, then glaring, then gleaming.
You would find a syllable and ride it,
up and up and up
and down,
up and up and up—
You had a voice that could fill a cathedral.
Your roommates, mercifully, were deaf.

9th

And when all your syllables were lost,
you still had sound.
When the nurses phoned me with updates,
I could hear your voice from down the hall:
raw, elemental, untiring.
I was embarrassed;
I wondered what others must think of you.
I did not realize that you were divining;
keening your own wake
in your mother tongue.

10th

Pneumonia, that old-time
friend gripped your chest.
You groaned and thrashed, desperate
it looked, to escape your skin.
The nurses offered opioid blessings.
And while I sang the saints,
you passed to silence.

 

“The Stations of Her Loss” read by Holly Tsun Haggarty

Face

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Buzzing by Flavia Testa

 

Face

“The soul, which is spirit , cannot dwell in dust; it is carried along to dwell in blood.”
St. Augustine, The Confessions

My figment, my flirt, my false friend,
who do you favour? What’s your fee? You can depend
on craters and valleys and friction
to warn — you will not be able to flaunt your fiction
forever. You are mine. Though you and I
have different views and count different lines with sly
and varying perspectives. I no longer know when the race
began or why I culled what I culled and left so much to waste,
my colourful, wilting mourning glory. When you stop guarding
your story what will you regard? See what comes of hoarding.
Close your eyes for an instant in the fermenting fields of the South
and railroad tracks stream down the sides of your mouth.
Still, don’t the lines that brace your eyes when you smile proclaim, not grace
exactly as the train speeds, but a moment of no death in the face of the face.

 

 

“Face” read by Carole Glasser Langille

Words Fail Me

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Autumn by Phyllis Koppel

 

Words Fail Me

Snow is falling in my brain, gentle,
relentless. It starts with a small silence,

a gap
in the easy rhythm of talk. A familiar word fails

to arrive.
Bewildered by the changing landscape,

beginning to be frightened, I push on,
awkwardly: hard to keep up

appearances. Listeners glance away, pretend
not to notice, or supply quick replacements, share

their own stories of missing nouns. Cold comfort
to think this a preparation for death,

a gradual letting go of words, mind,
their interplay, once so full of colour,

like                      those trees in fall, leaves
red, red-gold — what are they called? —

I used to know the Latin name —
now smothered in blank white.

Surely I am not so far from home, have known
these woods since childhood, found

gifts of chanterelles, black trumpets — ah!
I think I recognize a known thing, plunge

grateful hands into                      a drift.

 

“Words Fail Me” read by Janet Barkhouse

 

Granny

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I am an old woman made of deposited salt

My bloodline runs authentically hot

I hail from perpetual sunrise

Where battle is real and peace treaties are lies

Spent decades on my feet and kept my house clean

Raised chickens and children under rule of British Queen

Voyaged across the Atlantic through treacherous middle passage reef

Found rocky shores of New Scotland, Tancook cabbage, and bully beef

Built a home away from home using scraps of knotted lumber

Felled trees of hard knocks and hard won my short slumber

A product of survival and scarcity

Grandmother of plenty rude pickney

Like dis pretty likkle one here, just turn 23, Say she goes to uni-ver-sity

Schooled in critical feminism & fancy race theory

I was never taught to be critical of my history

Had no time to figure out philosophy, found maths a bit too ‘calculacy

So I took a slow minute to count one to ‘tree

Summed up my children on hands and knee

While she waxes her big people degree, tongue wagging ‘bout colonial austerity

Says my folklore Fante faith is a practice of fu-ti-lity

That my cataract vision lacks clarity

But I can still clearly see and feel the scars of hypocrisy

My Ashanti people pioneered absent terrains of de-territory

Withstood no vacancies and no jobs here sorry

The mystery of my history she breaks down for me

The metalanguage of race she translates haughtily for equality

Granny she says with strong chin

interpreting for me Code Noir of French and British imperialism

She gestures cut eye and kiss teeth how us Caribbean folk behave:

Old woman you are so much more now than a glorified nurse maid

You were recruited for academic merit and skilled employability

Visas are no longer denied based on race and nationality.

One thing I do know from the years of looking back

If I ever fixed my mouth to talk to grown woman like ‘dat

my mouth and ‘ma tail would have get slap

I would have felt the rod on my seat of my education

What ‘dis girl know ‘bout involuntary disciplinary participation?

I tell her: no matter how biggity you feel in that self-labeled identity

Or turn up your wide nose to capitalist prosperity

how hard you kick the gift horse of liberty

Sweet girl I’ll still give you one lesson for free

One you can take very personally

Ole Granny can still bend you over her knee

Look chile there in the dark hollow of yonder tree

the ship gallow where they stacked and chained whole villages quite legally

Little Black Sambos for the new community

refused us education spare needlework and carpentry

See there where that resilient little Birch tree bends

And the pristine whiteness that lies where the treetop descends

The trail of broken canoes in the shallow pockets of promised land

The broken spirits on soil that cyaan grow banana and yam

Where at the promised treetop is the place for we?

From the frozen North we will never pick mango or sweet dilly

This short summer can never warm to Linton’s dub poetry

Shaded by the cursed penmanship of dead poet society

You and all your education

Come from the humanities of feeder school segregation

The backs of many Jamaicans laboured and toiled that great hill

For your high and mighty city view from the Citadel

Sweet girl you can’t hypothesize centuries of genocide

Millions enslaved and severed from land and family ties

Gold Coast of golden plantain plundered for plantation crops

Tribal nations reduced to concubines and sweatshops

Our history isn’t something you can feel from a newly written book

Cuz you don’t know the real story until all your facts gets took

You think I’m subservient because I’m so neat and quiet

What you know about the necessity of riot?

18th century Nova Scotia kept thousands residentially and mentally enslaved

Parliament sowed sloppy seeds wherever it forcefully laid

You’re the light skinned reminders insidious attention paid

Book of Negroes and church obits the only clue to how most of us were made

And even those can’t be fully trusted

Language preserved in code to allude Colonel Mustard

We didn’t have material resources

Faith and education were not at all easy choices

But if we learned anything from 140 years of Trelawney Maroon strategy

Even more than the hard lesson of coerced policy

It’s that we were free before the bondage of subsidy

Daughters of mountaineers and Dahomey warrior brides

Revolts of British colony and evangelical Baptist scribes

“Come-from away” culture passed on through artistic oral history

Social work and scientific achievements are buried in mystery

So before you try to wrinkle my starched Sunday wear

Just know I ironed my burdens with care

Laid them down with righteous song and tearful prayer

Weaved my worries into baskets from scraps of birch tree

Carried life and love for all of you pickney

Now you come with plaited weave to tell me ‘bout my history

But what do I know? I’m just an old woman of deposited salt

Whose bloodline runs authentically hot

Hail from the lifted head to the perpetual sunrise

Where the battle is real and peace treaties are lies